“That Book in Your Hand”
The first of my sermons on Bibliology (the study of what the Scriptures are, and how they came to us) dealt with the inspiration of the Scriptures, from II Timothy 3:16. I have been writing for about a week on thoughts related to that sermon.
This series is more academic/technical than my usual writing, and some readers may be wondering why, and why I have spent so much time on the Greek word theopneustos (“given by inspiration of God”). This post may provide some explanation.
An unfortunate teaching began in the 1880s and has spread through the theology department of seminaries and Christian universities and colleges, whether reformed, evangelical, or Christian fundamentalist. Most pastors with theological training have heard this teaching, and many have been influenced by it. It is essentially a problem of definitions, but it can cause confusion and have significant pastoral ramifications.
My primary purpose in the sermon I preached and in this series of posts is to lay down a marker for our church fellowship as to what we believe and teach.
God breathed the Scriptures into existence, and He breathed life into the Scriptures. They are divine in origin and divine in nature, a living, life-giving, and life-changing Book.
I have written five posts on evidences for the meaning of theopneustos, which I have now summarised (with links to the detail) in this post, The Meaning of theopneustos. Near the bottom, I’ve added two sections on the grammatical context and the translational / theological history of the word. That page (with the supporting links) explains the reasons for the definition I have given and the assertions I make in this post about the meaning of the word.
The act by which God gave the Scriptures (historically called “immediate inspiration”) is not the full meaning of theopneustos. The meaning goes beyond etymology, and includes the connotations of the breath of God. The focus is not primarily on the divine origin of the Bible, but on the divine nature resulting from that divine origin.
This divine nature or quality is present in an accurate copy. The nature of the Scriptures resides in the words and concepts, not in paper and ink. Thus, a completely accurate copy is as fully inspired as the original, even though it was not “immediately inspired.”
This living and life-giving nature is present in translations. Thus, the nations can receive life through the Scriptures (Romans 16:25-27). Peter can tell Greek readers that their Old Testament translation gives them a “sure word of prophecy” (II Peter 1:19). Paul can tell Timothy to “preach the Word” from his Greek translation of the Old Testament because it is theopneustos and profitable. Just as Timothy’s imperfect but reasonably accurate translation was theopneustos, so any reasonably accurate translation in any language is inspired today. Neither Timothy’s translation nor ours were “immediately inspired.”
An Unfortunate Teaching
The Latin root ”spiro” from which ”inspiration” is derived means ”breathe.” We still see this root in words like “respiratory.” ”Inspire” (though in modern English it has acquired other connotations) meant “breathe into,” while “ex-spire / expire” (which also now has other meanings) meant “breathe out.”
For centuries, theopneustos was understood to refer to both the Divine origin (historical) AND the Divine nature (current) of the Scriptures. We see this in both the history of translations and in theological writing. (If you have read my prior posts but not the summary page linked above, this is discussed near the bottom.) Thus, theopneustos was translated with some form of the expression “inspired by God” (breathed into) in every major translation until 1970.
Benjamin B. Warfield — A Word Redefined
In the late 19th century, Benjamin Warfield (eventually of Princeton Theological Seminary) changed the focus. Writing in 1881 (with A.A. Hodge), Warfield responded to heretical challenges to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. However, as he focused on the theological problem, he redefined theopneustos (inspiration) to mean ”immediate inspiration.”
Warfield specifically said he was narrowing the definition, and suggested his technical definition was narrower than Biblical usage (citations and analysis of some of his teaching here: Warfield’s Redefinition of Inspiration).
For Warfield, “inspired” became no longer what “is,” a statement about the current nature of Scripture, but only what “was,” a statement about how God gave the Scriptures, their origin. He taught that the Scriptures were ”breathed-out” (ex-spired) rather than ”breathed-into” (inspired), and that only the original autographs were inspired (past tense rather than the Biblical present tense).
Warfield was a brilliant theologian and writer, and his teaching “swept the field,” so to speak. Some, like Arthur Pink, still held to the historic view of inspiration, but the vast majority of theologians and theological seminaries followed Warfield’s redefinition of inspiration.
Thus, another great scholar of more recent times, Gleason Archer, in his Survey of Old Testament Introduction wrote of theopneustos:
This word is really to be rendered ‘breathed out by God’ rather than ’breathed into by God.’ The emphasis is upon the divine origin of the inscripturated revelation itself rather than upon a special quality infused into the words of Scripture.
Archer follows Warfield, changing “inspired” to “ex-spired,” a reference only to the divine origin of the Bible. The New International Version, in the 1970s, abandoned “inspiration” and translated, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” based solely on etymology. The English Standard Version went further: ”All Scripture is breathed out by God” (emphasis mine), moving past etymology to base translation on a theological redefinition from the 1880s.
Warfield’s limitation of inspiration to the original autographs alone has been widely adopted. Another evangelical theologian, Greg Bahnsen wrote:
Therefore, inspiration may be applied legitimately only to the autographs of Scripture.
Even a superb school like Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary says at the beginning of a document on their website (more on this document later — it improves further down):
The biblical and historic fundamentalist view on the inspiration of the Scripture is that only the original manuscripts are God-breathed and therefore inerrant (2 Tim 3:16).
These are only representative — if you search the Internet for “inspiration” and “autographs” you will find hundreds of similar statements. Many who believe in inspiration today limit it to the originals. Copies, even accurate ones, are not inspired by God at all, and a translation certainly isn’t inspired.
Inspiration has Expired
“That Book in Your Hand”, by this teaching, is not inspired, not given by inspiration of God. Since we don’t have the original manuscripts, and since inspiration is limited to those original autographs, “inspired” has not only been changed to “expired”, inspiration itself has expired — it ceased to exist when the original autographs ceased to exist. You do not have an inspired Bible, and you never will. No one does. That is the harsh statement of the theological consensus that follows Warfield’s redefinition of inspiration.
Where the Teaching is Right — and Where it is Wrong
Warfield’s teaching, followed so widely today, is correct in recognising the unique miraculous act of God in the original giving of the Scriptures (immediate inspiration, sometimes called “inscripturation”). Inspiration (theopneustos) by etymology clearly has some reference to immediate inspiration, the divine origin of the Scriptures, and there is no error in drawing on that fact. Furthermore, immediate inspiration is properly limited to the original autographs.
The error is in tearing a Biblical word away from its Scriptural usage and giving it a narrow technical definition. Paul was not writing only about immediate inspiration when he penned theopneustos. He was writing about the Book Timothy was to preach, which could not have been original autographs in Greek-speaking Ephesus.
Bahnsen elsewhere at least momentarily backed away from the error, saying of a modern translation:
…but it is still the very Word of God, inspired and inerrant – to the degree that it reflects the original work of God, which… is a qualification that is very seldom in need of being stated.
He said that his translation is inspired in a qualified way (and the qualification is so obvious it rarely needs stated). This is much better, much closer to Biblical usage — where no qualification was stated. Others have spoken of copies and translations (“That Book in Your Hand”) as being inspired in a derived sense, deriving their inspiration from their faithfulness to the original. The Detroit Baptist statement I cited above says later:
All other texts, copies, reproductions, translations, and versions partake of inspiration in an indirect, linear fashion from previous copies and translations to the extent that they reproduce the text of the original manuscripts.
This is far superior to the stark opening statement I cited previously, affirming what one of my professors (and many other theologians) adamantly denied. It admits Book-in-hand inspiration (in some sense), which is more than many are willing to do. It is accurate in recognising that the inspiration of copies and translations is dependent on fidelity to the original – but it still misses the point to an extent.
Those who speak of “derived” or “indirect” inspiration tend to treat it almost as an after-thought, as if the thing that really matters is the theological discussion of the act of immediate inspiration. They have it backwards. To the pastor and teacher, to the man in the pew, and to the professional theogian in his spiritual life, for that matter, immediate inspiration is of no value at all unless the divine nature of the Scriptures lives on. The focus is wrong, and far from Paul’s focus.
We should not minimise what Paul is saying by qualifying or using terms like “derived” or “indirect.” Paul was talking about Timothy’s Greek translation when he said it is theopneustos — and he simply didn’t insert “derived” or “indirect” to lessen the force of his statement. We shouldn’t, either.
Those who speak of “derived” inspiration are still primarily talking about the origin (immediate inspiration) of the Scriptures. They are using a definition of inspiration that was adopted for theological controversies, rather than one determined by Paul’s actual usage of the word. That definition drives them to use words that diminish the impact of the message of II Timothy 3:16 for believers who hold a divine Book in their hands.
Heretics and Apostates?
A few have charged Warfield (and those who followed in his footsteps) with heresy or apostasy. This is serious error, in both fact and spirit. The mistake discussed here is a problem of definition, not apostasy or heresy, and to level such charges is untrue and uncharitable. Warfield’s statements about “inspiration” are entirely true of “immediate inspiration,” and he provided an immense service to God’s people. His work should be appreciated, even if it isn’t infallible.
Does it Matter?
Truth always matters, of course, but this has pastoral implications. If I preach Warfield’s teaching on inspiration as the whole meaning of theopneustos, I have stolen II Timothy 3:16 from the people in our church. I merely describe something that happened historically, rather than affirming their faith in “That Book in Your Hand.”
Paul’s entire purpose was to affirm the value of Timothy’s Book-in-hand. He didn’t include the “only in the originals” caveat that is usually included today. It simply isn’t there in II Timothy 3:16 — and if I were to teach it, it would weaken, rather than strengthen, the hearers’ faith in ”That Book in Their Hands.”
God’s people have been taught by His Spirit to recognise the Scriptures as a Book that is divine in nature as well as origin. When we redefine “inspired” we are effectively teaching, whether we mean to or not, that their Book-in-hand is not divine — it isn’t inspired, only the originals are. Their Book is merely man’s best effort, copying and translating through the centuries, to try to give them something that approximates the original inspired text.
Can anyone think, reading II Timothy 3:10-4:8, that this is really what Paul intended to convey — that God did something really good in the past, but we don’t have it any longer? What God did in inspiration only applies to the originals, Timothy, certainly not to your copies and translations. Can anyone read that Scripture passage and think that is really the force of what Paul meant to teach? Too many of our theologians have gone astray, turning a passage affirming your Book-in-hand into a teaching that casts doubts about that Book.
What Paul Intended
The word “inspire” signifies to in-breathe, and breath is both the means and evidence of life; for as soon as a person ceases to breathe he is dead. The Word of God, then, is vitalized by the very life of God, and therefore it is a living Book. Men’s books are like themselves—dying creatures; but God’s Book is like Himself—it “lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).
The Holy Scriptures not only were “inspired of God,” but they are so now. They come as really and as truly God’s Word to us, as they did unto those to whom they were first addressed. In substantiation of what I have just said, it is striking to note “Therefore as the Holy Spirit says, Today if you will hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Heb. 3:7, 8); and again, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says (not “said”) unto the churches” (Rev. 2:7). (emphasis mine)
Arthur Pink was correct when he said that in 1936, and it is true today. Thus Christians have believed through the centuries. Few modern theologians would say it so directly, but there are some.
Modern preoccupation with the no-longer-extant autographs too often neglects the very real and pragmatic plight of present-day Christians who desperately wish that the custodians of Biblical inspiration would give them some inclination as to the authority of their Bible, the one they hold in their hands. Is it or is it not the Word of God? Is it inspired or is it not?
Goodrick’s concluding words:
…one should hardly enlist 2 Tim 3:16-17 to support the pristine character of the autographs. Rather, he should exploit it to the full to demonstrate how valuable the God-breathed Scriptures are. And this, after all, is more important.
I would not say Goodrick gets everything right, but he is entirely correct about the purpose of Paul’s writing. This is what theopneustos means, in context.
Theologians should return to the term “immediate inspiration,” or perhaps use ”inspired inscripturation.” They should not use theopneustos, “given by inspiration of God,” to describe only the origin of Scripture. It is a Biblical word, and should be used in keeping with its Biblical context and usage.
However, professional theologians are not the “custodians of Biblical inspiration.” That title belongs to the church (I Timothy 3:15), taught and led by pastors. We use and appreciate the work of theologians, but pastors teach in the church the inspired Word to men, women, and children. Our church, one “custodian of Biblical inspiration,” teaches thus:
The Bible in your hand is inspired, “given by inspiration of God.” The word theopneustos belongs to you when you read the Bible, to your pastor when he preaches it, and to all of us as we live it. “That Book in Your Hand” came from God, and it is and will continue to be a God-thing in character and quality, God-breathed, divine in nature. Living, life-giving, and life-changing, we read it, study it, believe it, and obey it.
Update: Next main article.